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Is 'gay' over?

Is 'gay' over?

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A new generation of same-sex-loving youths are breaking down the old definitions and choosing to call themselves queer, questioning, open, fluid--anything but gay. Should we mourn the old word, and what will take its place?

When Ellen DeGeneres came out on the cover of Time magazine nearly 10 years ago, she did it using three simple, now-iconic words: "Yep, I'm Gay." It stands as an event that in the expanding gaze of history appears to be every bit the major cultural touchstone the country believed it to be back in April 1997, if for no other reason than in the nine years since, one would need to have lived in a cave to have missed the meteoric expansion of LGBT visibility in American popular culture. Oh, and the sudden primacy of LGBT issues in national political discourse. And the explosion of out LGBT youth. And the growing elasticity of gender norms. And the revolutionary role the Internet has played in bringing LGBT people together, connecting even the most isolated on an unprecedented scale.

But let's circle back to those three words, or, really, that last one: "Gay." In the Time story, DeGeneres explained she was more comfortable using the word gay, half-joking that for a long time she felt the word lesbian "sounded like somebody with some kind of disease."

At the time, DeGeneres's nonchalant insistence on bucking the semantic status quo when it came to defining her sexuality barely registered amid the thundering cheers that Finally, Someone Did It. And yet, looking at that cover today, her decision to use gay in order to say "this is who I am" could be the most prophetic--and ironic--aspect of Ellen's entire coming out. Because in 2006, after all the swift and sudden change that tumbled forth following that cover, gay, in all its meanings--personal, communal, cultural, political--seems to be going through its own identity crisis.

"Gay as an identity, as we used to know it, may be pretty much at an end," argues Arnold Zwicky, a respected Stanford University linguist who came out on the campus of Ohio State University in 1970, just a year after the Stonewall riots. "People are thinking of their sexuality in a much more diffuse way. The word gay has split and splintered and been used for all kinds of related but distinct things to the degree now where it's actually hard to talk about this stuff [and all mean the same thing]."

"There's no longer a dichotomy [like] 'either you're gay or you're straight; these are the two options,' " echoes David Levithan, who coedited the newly published The Full Spectrum: A New Generation of Writing About Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, and Other Identities, compiled from submissions by writers in their teens and early 20s from red and blue states alike. By far, Levithan says, LGBT youth "see themselves more as individuals than being defined necessarily by their sexuality."

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